We work as communications counsel — alongside our clients’ legal and financial counsel — on litigation, regulatory actions, operational breakdowns, negative financial results, activist shareholders, data breaches, product failures, service outages and labor disputes.
It’s during these difficult situations that our integrated approach to media relations, leadership communications and investor relations pays off. Here are seven battle-tested basics from our playbook:
1. Imagine the worst, and prepare for it.
2. Make the CEO an integral part of your crisis communications plan.
Much that goes wrong in business can be anticipated by looking at the experiences of other companies, both in and out of your peer group. We work with clients to identify potential scenarios and put a crisis communications plan in place. And then we help test it with real-time drills.
3. Take a cold-eyed look at the state of your journalists’ relationships before a crisis hits.
Companies often find, to their regret, that relying solely on press release statements or responses by legal counsel or low-level spokespeople falls short as a communications tactic. In a true crisis, only the CEO can credibly represent the company and ultimately will be called on to address its situation. Then the question becomes one of message, tone, timing and setting. That’s why the CEO needs to play a leading role in developing the company’s crisis communications plan.
4. Be prepared to monitor social media 24/7 to counter inaccuracies and speculation.
Do you interact frequently or rarely with the media? Where do your reporter relationships lie on the continuum between constructive and contentious? Are you following the Tweets of reporters who cover your company? How many reporters follow your company’s Tweets? Try this exercise: If your CEO wanted to reach out today to the media to address a major negative news development affecting your company, which journalist should be offered the first interview? And when was the last time a company executive interacted with that reporter?
5. Ask yourself what sources outside the company would likely be contacted by reporters in a crisis.
Major negative news generates a wave of social media comment, much of it ill informed, speculative, mean-spirited, crude or just plain wrong. Tweets and posts intended as humor or irony will often be taken literally. It is neither possible nor desirable to take on all comers. But it’s important to have the capability to monitor social media for potentially harmful inaccuracies or misrepresentations. These may need to be addressed immediately, not only through social media but also directly with reporters, client-facing staff, regulators or other important audiences who are online.
6. Have a plan for each important audience.
Which adversaries or critics would you expect to pile on (perhaps off the record) in a negative news environment? That may include competitors, analysts, litigants, disgruntled former or current employees, dissatisfied customers, consumer activists, labor activists, and many others. On the other hand, which relationships would be inclined to support the company? Thinking this through will sharpen your crisis preparations.
7. When a crisis develops, strive to be the source of fresh information as events unfold.
While most companies have a business continuity plan, they may not have fully thought through the challenges of communicating with customers, employees, distribution channels, shareholders, regulators and business partners, government officials and other key groups in a crisis environment. Though you will want to have a consistent message across all these groups, each one will have different priorities and concerns in a crisis. Sometimes, these priorities conflict and reassuring messages for one group may raise concerns with another important constituency.
Every piece of news in a crisis tends to generate new headlines and headaches. You will usually have more leverage in situations in which it’s your company releasing the new information rather than another party to events. Even when you can’t drive the timing of new developments, make sure your company is well prepared in advance to deal with the reactions of customers, employees, shareholders and other key business relationships.